05/20/2004 12:00AM

Quick turnaround for 'Melba'

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AUBURN, Wash. - Melba Jewel, a beaten favorite in last Sunday's Federal Way Handicap, will wheel right back to take on eight other 3-year-old fillies in Saturday's feature, a $40,000 optional claiming test at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Melba Jewel ran a corker in her first start of the year, running Sandia's Flicka to a nose decision in the six-furlong U.S. Bank Stakes. Off that effort, Melba Jewel was bet down to 8-5 for the 6 1/2-furlong Federal Way, but she flattened out late after stalking the pace into the stretch and wound up fifth, beaten four lengths by the victorious Sariano in 1:15.80.

It was the first off-the-board finish in six starts for Melba Jewel, who won the six-furlong Angie C. Stakes here last season for trainer Frank Lucarelli. The trainer has again tabbed Gallyn Mitchell to do the riding at 116 pounds.

Among Melba Jewel's challengers are Crystal Mt. Stevie and Futloosanfancyfree, who finished eighth and ninth in the U.S. Bank Stakes. Crystal Mt. Stevie came back to show the way against male rivals in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race on May 2, but weakened late to finish fifth.

Also dangerous are recent winners Karis Makaw and Baby Let's Groove. Karis Makaw comes off a game front-running win over maiden special weight company at five furlongs on April 23, while Baby Let's Groove led throughout to beat allowance rivals at six furlongs on May 1. That was the first start of the year for Baby Let's Groove, a daughter of Petersburg from the barn of trainer Dan Markle. Baby Let's Groove won two of her three starts here last season as a 2-year-old.